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Performance of Future Elite Players at the National Football League Scouting Combine

Hedlund, David P.

The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: November 2018 - Volume 32 - Issue 11 - p 3112–3118
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002252
Original Research

Hedlund, DP. Performance of future elite players at the NFL scouting combine. J Strength Cond Res 32(11): 3112–3118, 2018—The purpose of this study is to examine players' physical and performance measures taken at the National Football League (NFL) Scouting Combine and compare these with their future performance in the NFL. From 2002 to 2016, 3 types of player data (N = 5,506) were collected from secondary data sources. Results of players earned on various NFL Scouting Combine drills and measurements (e.g., height, body mass, 40-yard dash time, vertical jump, bench press repetitions, shuttle run time, and 3-cone drill time), the position players play on the field (e.g., quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, and defensive back), and if players received elite performance awards (e.g., Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections) in the future were collected. After analyzing the data, the results indicate that (a) NFL quarterbacks that received All-Pro and Pro Bowl awards tend to be taller, weigh more, run faster in the 40-yard dash, jump higher, complete more bench press reps, and are slower for the shuttle run and 3-cone drill; (b) All-Pro and Pro Bowl NFL running backs tend to weigh more, run the 40-yard dash faster, do not jump as high, complete more bench press reps, and complete the shuttle run and 3-cone drills slower; (c) NFL wide receivers who were selected for the Pro Bowl or as All-Pros tend to be taller, weigh more, run the 40-yard dash faster, have a higher vertical jump, and run the 3-cone drill faster; (d) NFL tight ends that received All-Pro and Pro Bowl awards tend to be taller, weigh more, run the 40-yard dash faster, jump higher, complete more bench press reps, run the shuttle run slower, and complete the 3-cone drill faster; (e) All-Pro and Pro Bowl NFL offensive linemen tend to run the 40-yard dash faster, jump higher, are able to complete more bench press reps, and run both the shuttle run and 3-cone drill faster; (f) NFL defensive linemen who were selected as All-Pro and Pro Bowl players tend to be taller, weigh more, run the 40-yard dash faster, jump higher, complete more bench press reps, and run the 3-cone drill faster; (g) NFL linebackers who were named to the All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams tend to be taller, weigh more, run the 40-yard dash faster, jump higher, can complete more bench press reps, and run both the shuttle run and 3-cone drill faster; and (h) NFL wide receivers that were selected for the Pro Bowl or as an All-Pro tend to weigh more, run the 40-yard dash faster, jump higher, can complete fewer bench press reps, and run the shuttle run slower. Certified strength and conditioning specialists for college and professional teams will be able to use these results to help train and set performance goals for American football athletes with whom they work and train.

Division of Sport Management, College of Professional Studies, St. John's University, New York, New York

Address correspondence to David P. Hedlund, hedlundd@stjohns.edu.

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Introduction

Among sport team personnel (e.g., coaches, managers, strength and conditioning coaches), there are frequent questions about what constitutes elite National Football League (NFL) players. To answer this question, some have examined athletes' physical characteristics (1,4,14), whereas others have examined performance data from the NFL Scouting Combine (5,13,15). In previous research studies, however, few have combined both types of data and examined their relationship with future performance data for NFL players. Furthermore, no one has identified differences in physical performance measurements between NFL players who never received performance awards and more elite NFL athletes. As a result, the purposes of these research studies was to collect published data on the physical performance results from all athletes who participated in the NFL Scouting Combine and to identify which of those athletes received NFL performance awards in the future (i.e., being selected as to play in the NFL Pro Bowl or selected as an NFL All-Pro player). The studies also examined differences between the physical characteristics of all these athletes based on the position on the field they play. By undertaking these research studies, the physical characteristics of average compared with 2 types of elite NFL players (i.e., those selected NFL Pro Bowl players and those selected as NFL All-Pro players) can be identified. Furthermore, both college and professional league strength and conditioning coaches can learn more about the physical characteristics and performance results for NFL players. Because physical characteristics and performance results play a role in being drafted and being successful in the NFL (15), the results of these research studies can inform coaches and athletes about the quantitative physical and performance measurements NFL prospects should achieve if they want to maximize their chances of being drafted and potentially become an elite player during their career.

Although there are multiple ways in which a collegiate American football player can become an NFL player, the most common path is through showcasing their skills at the NFL Scouting Combine. The NFL Scouting Combine is an opportunity for “executives, coaches, scouts, and doctors from all 32 NFL teams conduct an intense, 4-day job interview in advance of the NFL Draft” (10). At the event, more than 300 prospects are invited to participate in drills, a variety of testing (e.g., physical, aptitude, and drug screening), medical examinations, and interviews (6,10). During the drills and testing procedures, all prospects complete these activities at approximately the same time, under the same conditions, using the same equipment, and all at a neutral location. Therefore, the results obtained at the NFL Scouting Combine are more likely to be reliable and valid compared with other measurements completed at their respective university (5). At the NFL Scouting Combine, in addition to body measurements (e.g., height and body mass), multiple drills and tests are all open for draft prospects to complete. Quantitative results for the drills and tests are recorded and reported to all 32 NFL teams, although not all draft prospects complete all drills. Table 1 displays a list and description of the 5 primary on-field drills that most prospects complete.

Table 1

Table 1

The NFL Scouting Combine occurs in February or March, and during the subsequent weeks before the NFL Draft, prospects and their respective universities are allowed to hold “Pro Days,” during which time, the athletes can engage in a variety of drills and activities to showcase their skills and abilities. In addition, NFL teams can invite draft prospects to their own facility and conduct private workouts and team visits. All these activities are conducted before the NFL Draft.

In the U.S., the draft process for professional sports is fundamentally different from sport-to-sport. For example, the NFL draft is a 7-round, reverse-order draft, meaning that the team with the worst win-loss record from the previous season receives the first pick in the subsequent draft. The National Basketball Association (NBA) uses a lottery system to determine which team receives the first pick in the draft (i.e., the worse a team's previous season record, the higher likelihood the team will receive a better/higher draft pick); however, the entire draft includes only 2 rounds. Major League Baseball (MLB), by contrast, has a 40-round, reverse-order draft. Among the professional leagues, there are also substantive differences in other aspects of the draft, such as player eligibility for the draft, signing rules and contracts for drafted players.

The NFL Draft is held in late April or early May and consists of 7 rounds of 32 picks in each round (1 pick for each team, unless the team trades their pick). During rounds 3–7, compensatory picks are also frequently added. According to the NFL, “a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it acquires in the previous year is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks” (8). From 2012 to 2016, the total number of prospects drafted in each year ranged from 253 to 256 (7).

For NFL players, besides winning championships, several individual accolades are highly desirable, based on personal (instead of team) success, and are not necessarily indicative of the record (e.g., wins, losses, and ties) of the team on which one plays. These accolades include being chosen to play in the Pro Bowl and being selected by the media as an All-Pro. To be selected to play in the Pro Bowl, players are voted on each year by fans, coaches, and other players (i.e., each of the 3 groups receives a one-third share of the total vote) (11). For offensive, defensive, and some special teams' positions on the field, from 1 to 4 players are selected to play in the Pro Bowl. In terms of All-Pro selections, 50 members of the Associated Press vote for the top player at each position (17). Depending on the position, the top 1–2 players on offense, defense, and special teams are selected as All-Pros. Receiving either accolade indicates the elite nature of each selected player's performance that year; however, according to Wesseling (16), “when historians and researchers study an NFL player's career, it's not the number of Pro Bowl selections that carry the most weight. Landing a spot on the All-Pro first team has always been more prestigious, as well as a more accurate sign of a player's value during that season” (16). The most elite NFL players each year are selected to the Pro Bowl and as All-Pro selections.

In summary, understanding the factors and characteristics that may impact whether or not athletes are drafted into the NFL and how those characteristics may impact the future performance of NFL players are critical for those responsible for training athletes to become NFL players. Because results from the NFL Scouting Combine play a large role in decisions teams make about which player(s) to draft, the first purpose of this study is to collect and report data and measurements taken at the NFL Scouting Combine. In addition, although many people compare individual players (e.g., Player A is similar to Player B), a more full understanding of differences between all players at each position would be more useful. As a result, the second purpose of this study is to compare differences in measurements and results taken at the NFL Scouting Combine for 8 different types of positional players in the NFL. Finally, the third purpose of this study is to separately identify NFL Scouting Combine results for average and 2 types of elite NFL players using longitudinal (career) data. The results of these research studies can be used to identify differences between average and elite NFL players at different positions, and coaches and trainers can use the results to improve areas where athletes' skills and abilities may be deficient.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

Player data were retrieved from 2 separate sources. The CBSSports.com website provides NFL Scouting Combine data on all NFL prospects that took part in drills (2), whereas the Pro-Football-Reference.com website contains NFL Draft and career data on every player who played in the NFL during the same 15-year period (12). After player data were collected from both websites for all 15 years, the data were manually merged together to form a single data set, from which analyses could be undertaken.

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Subjects

In total, NFL Scouting Combine and NFL career data for 5,506 NFL draft prospects and professional NFL players were collected. Based on the total number of collected records, 4,914 (89.25%) individuals participated in the NFL Scouting Combine, 3,844 (69.81%) were drafted into the NFL, and 3,464 (62,91) played in at least one NFL game. In Table 2, descriptive statistics about the aggregated results from the NFL Scouting combine and players' career data are provided. Because all of the data was collected from open source websites, no interaction between the investigator and subjects (NFL prospects and players) occurred. As a result, approval from an institutional review board was not necessary.

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Procedures

Data from the NFL Scouting Combine included age at the draft and 7 potential measurements procured at the event (e.g., height, body mass, 40-yard dash time, vertical jump, bench press repetitions, shuttle run time, and 3-cone drill time). Because of concerns about validity of data which may have been collected at other times by other sources (e.g., measurements taken at players' respective universities), and because some draft prospects do not complete events or are not measured at the NFL Scouting Combine but are measured at their personal “Pro Day,” it was determined that only measurements taken at the NFL Scouting Combine would be included in the data set because of the standardized conditions surrounding the event. The remaining information included players' career data, including total career length, number of games played during their career, number of years as a primary starter, number of years as a Pro Bowl selection, and number of years as an All-Pro selection.

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Results

The first examination of the data includes basic descriptive statistics (sample size, minimum, maximum, mean, and SD) for all collected data (Table 2).

Table 2

Table 2

The total sample size (n = 5,506) includes every individual who participated in the NFL Scouting Combine and was drafted into the NFL from 2002 to 2016. Because prospects must complete at least 3 years of education before declaring for the NFL draft, the youngest participants in the combine and draft were 20 years old. The average height of those measured at the NFL Scouting Combine from 2002 to 2016 was 187.45-cm tall with a minimum height of 165.1 cm (Trindon Holliday in 2010) and a maximum height of 208.28 cm (Dennis Roland in 2006). The average body mass was 110.69 kg with a minimum of 67.59 kg (Brandon Banks in 2010) and a maximum of 170.10 kg (Mike Williams in 2002). For 40-yard dash times, the average was 4.81 with a minimum of 4.24 seconds (Chris Johnson in 2008) and a maximum of 6.06 (Isiah Thompson in 2011). For the vertical jump, the average was 88.39 cm with a minimum of 44.45 cm (Josue Matias in 2015) and a maximum of 116.84 cm (Gerald Sensabaugh in 2005). In terms of the bench press, the mean was 21.24 repetitions, and the minimum was 2 reps (Joshua Moore in 2010) and a maximum of 49 reps (Stephen Paea in 2011). For the shuttle run, the average time was 4.39 seconds with the fastest time of 3.75 seconds (Dunta Robinson in 2004) and slowest recorded time of 5.56 seconds (Isaiah Thompson in 2011). The average time for the 3-cone drill was 7.28 seconds, and the fastest time was 6.42 seconds (Jeff Maehl in 2011) and slowest recorded time was 9.12 (Gus Felder in 2003). A prospect that entered the league in the 2002 NFL Draft and continued to play through the conclusion of the 2016 season would have a career length of 15 years. Each season contains at least 16 games, so over the course of 15 years, not including playoff games, the most number of games a player could have played, would be 240 games. As examples of the remaining stats, Julius Peppers (15-year career, 14 years as a primary starter, 234 games played), Jason Witten (10 Pro Bowl selections), and Joe Thomas (6 All-Pro selections) are all stand outs.

Next, players were grouped by their primary position (e.g., quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, and defensive back). Generally speaking, running backs include both fullbacks and halfbacks; the offensive line includes centers, offensive tackles, and offensive guards; the defensive line contains nose tackles, defensive tackles, and defensive ends; linebackers include both inside and outside linebackers; and defensive backs comprise cornerbacks, free safeties, and strong safeties. In any case where players may have played multiple positions, whichever position at which they earned most of their on-fields statistics was used as their primary position. Subsequently, each of the 8 positions was further broken down into 3 categories (e.g., no accolades [i.e., a player who never received any award], Pro Bowl selection, and All-Pro selection). Finally, combine results for the 7 measurements or drills were used to calculate the mean for each of the 8 positions and for all 3 accolade categories. In total, 168 separate results were found; however, there was no bench press data for quarterbacks that were selected as All-Pros, therefore only 167 results are available (Table 3).

Table 3

Table 3

The results for each of the 7 NFL Scouting Combine measures when examined based on the 8 position categories and for players who received no awards, were selected for the Pro Bowl, and were selected as All-Pros show some interesting trends. For example, in terms of height, those that tend to be closer to the location at which the ball is snapped are taller, whereas the farther away one is the shorter they tend to be. A similar relationship is seen for weight, in that players who are closer to the ball when it is snapped tend to weigh more, and those numbers decrease as the position is farther away. For the 5 combine measurements, based on how the offense and defense tend to line-up against one another (e.g., offensive line vs. defensive line; linebackers vs. quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends; and wide receivers vs. defensive backs), comparisons about which positions might have an advantage for certain skills can be seen (e.g., the defensive line tends to be faster on 40-yard dash, shuttle run, and 3-cone drill compared with offensive line; wide receivers tend to be taller than defensive backs, defensive backs tend to be able to jump higher than wide receivers, and after combining height and vertical jump together, wide receivers should be able to get higher in the air than defensive backs). Overall, player profiles for different positions can be seen from the results, matchup challenges at different positions can be highlighted, and if a trainer knows the 7 measurements for an athlete, a good inference about what position they might play can be derived.

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Discussion

Since the mid-1970s, research studies have been published showing a variety of aggregated player results from the NFL Scouting Combine; however, since 2011, few studies have been published about the results for recently drafted players. Therefore, one of the most important takeaways from the current research studies is that it provides aggregated results from the NFL Scouting Combine over a recent 15-year span of time. Moreover, these results are broken down into normative categories representing the 8 categories of player positions. Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been numerous instances when players have been asked to play a position which is not their traditional or preferred position. One of the most well-known instances occurred in 1985 when the Chicago Bear's Head Coach, Mike Ditka, had William “The Refrigerator” Perry (a 325+ pound defensive tackle) act as a blocking fullback, and later as a running back in offensive situations near the opponent's goal line (3). Although these situations arise because of tactical, strategic, personnel, or injury-related reasons, players generally play 1 type of position under examination in these research studies (e.g., quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, and defensive back). It is important to understand the differences between the 8 types of players in their measureable characteristic and how elite players compare with normal ones across all the 7 measurements.

Another interesting takeaway from these research studies is the synthesis and subsequent examination of multiple data sources, including NFL Scouting Combine data, NFL Draft Data, and career performance data for NFL players. The data set for the current research studies contains historical data (i.e., combine results from the beginning of their career through the conclusion of the 2016 draft and 2016-17 season). It is also important to note a limitation, in that some players included in these research studies are still active in the NFL and have the opportunity to increase and improve their statistics in upcoming seasons, not to mention earning future accolades and awards. Another potential issue is missing or nonexistent data. Sometimes, athletes participated in the NFL Scouting Combine but were never drafted or played in the NFL, or alternatively, the athletes did not attend the combine but did earn a roster spot on an NFL team. In both of these scenarios, only a portion of the players' data might be available. In previous studies, data sets of 1 or several years have been common, but research studies such as the current one containing 15 years of data are rare (1,5,13,15). As a result, a fuller picture of NFL players' performance results is possible with research studies based on 15 years of data.

In the current research studies, Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades are also included. Because these accolades are earned through voting by other players, coaches, fans, and the media, they represent a more accurate and independent measures of the “elite” ability of each player. By contrast, awards like “Most Valuable Player” (MVP) are often given to players on championship teams. Although each of these variables has advantages and disadvantages, being voted into the Pro Bowl and selected as an All-Pro each are less a result of the team on which one plays and is more likely to be a valid representation of a player's play during the current year and career to date.

After reviewing and comparing the 7 NFL Combine measurements across 8 types of players who received no accolades, Pro Bowl, or All-Pro awards, numerous interesting conclusions can be drawn. For example, the most elite quarterbacks are taller, heavier, and faster for the 40-yard dash, can jump higher, can complete more bench press reps, and run both the shuttle run and 3-cone drill slower. In terms of the elite running backs, they tend to weigh less, run the 40-yard dash faster, have a shorter vertical jump, run the shuttle run slower, and run the 3-cone drill slightly faster. For the wide receivers who are the elite, they tend to be taller, heavier, can run the 40-yard dash faster, can jump higher, and run the 3-cone drill slightly faster. The elite tight ends are taller, heavier, run the 40-yard dash faster, have a higher vertical jump, can complete more bench press reps, run the shuttle run a bit slower, but run the 3-cone drill faster. For the elite offensive linemen, they tend to be able to jump higher, complete more bench press reps, and run both the shuttle run and 3-cone drill faster. In terms of the elite defensive linemen, they tend to run the 40-yard dash a bit faster, have a higher vertical jump, can complete more bench press reps, and can run the 3-cone drill faster. The elite linebackers weigh more, run the 40-yard dash faster, can jump higher, can complete more bench press reps, and can run the shuttle run faster. Finally, for the defensive backs that are elite, they tend to weigh more, have a higher vertical jump, can complete slightly fewer bench press reps, and can complete the shuttle run with slight longer times.

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Practical Applications

One of the most popular questions that arises about players at the NFL Scouting Combine and before the NFL Draft is whether or not a particular player has the tools and skill set necessary to become an elite NFL player in the future. In this study, physical and performance results are examined for 8 different types of positional players across nonelite and elite NFL players (i.e., those selected as Pro Bowl and All-Pro award recipients). For athletes and strength and conditioning coaches, the results provide useful information about the physical and performance measurements of many types of NFL players. If a particular athlete wants to play a particular position in the NFL, the results of these research studies provide a player profile for 8 separate positions. For example, if a trainer is working with an athlete who is 186-cm tall, weighs 100 kg, and can run the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds, this type of profile fits well with that of a linebacker; however, if the athlete can lose some weight and increase his/her speed, then the profile might fit better as a wide receiver. Based on the results of these research studies, athletes and trainers have up-to-date information about which areas are important to train and improve based on results from the NFL Scouting Combine. As another example, if a trainer is working with a defensive lineman, then based on the results of these research studies, the most elite defensive linemen can run the 40-yard dash in 4.86–4.89 seconds, can jump 81.10–83.72 cm during a vertical jump test, and can complete 27 or more bench press reps of 102 kg. Finally, the skills necessary for certain positions can also be inferred from the results. For example, elite quarterbacks tend to be taller and weigh more than those who never received any accolades. Moreover, although 40-yard dash times decreased (were faster) compared with those who never won any awards or accolades, for both the shuttle run and 3-cone drill, the speed at which elite quarterbacks completed those drills increased (were slower) compared with nonelite quarterbacks. Because the shuttle run and 3-cone drill measure skills and abilities related to the potential for the quarterback to scramble around the pocket, it can be inferred that these skills and abilities may not be as important as other performance measurements. Another example is elite running backs that tend to weigh less, run the 40-yard dash faster, may not be able to jump as high, have slower shuttle run, and faster 3-cone drill times compared with those classified as nonelite. It can be inferred that it may not be necessary for running backs to be able to run shorter distances faster and instead may be beneficial for them to run longer distances in which they need to change directions more. By contrast, elite wide receivers are more similar to quarterbacks than running backs, as they tend to be taller, weigh more, run the 40-yard dash faster, and jump higher. However, elite wide receivers diverge from quarterbacks in their 3-cone drill times which are slightly faster, indicating that the ability to run and cut in different directions may be important skills for elite wide receivers to have. Overall, these research studies fill a recent gap in the literature regarding up-to-date measurements from the NFL Scouting Combine. In addition, these research studies go further and provide this information about the physical profile for different NFL position players and for elite and nonelite players. As a result, athletes and strength and conditioning coaches have more information about the performance measurement a potential or current NFL draft prospect would need to achieve if they wanted to maximize their ability to become an elite player.

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    Keywords:

    American football; NFL draft; NFL Pro Bowl; NFL All-Pro; player performance

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